Every now and then I get an email from a distant Italian American relative. Usually someone older—in their 60s or 70s—almost never my age, 40, or younger. As it goes, they tend to be looking for information about our shared family history.
At the level of genealogy, it’s simple enough. Uncle so-and-so came over with Aunt such-and-such from Italy to some industrialized U.S. locale, where they found work and started a family. But when it comes to the social dynamics that propelled our ancestors’ immigration—or the cultural mythology that now surrounds their experiences in Italy and in the U.S.—I tend to keep mum. I’m not trying to upset my caller’s view of the past. After doing a deep dive into my own southern Italian history—and discovering more than a few surprising truths, such as that many Italian immigrants were radical leftists, or that our New World history is rich with militant labor uprisings and unionized strikes that were often seen as anti-social and unpatriotic—I’ve found it’s usually best to keep things light, especially when speaking with people from deindustrialized places where white ethnic identity still exists and Italian American identity has been called a “significant predictor of Trump support.”
A similar dynamic holds true with my (mostly white) creative and professional class friends in Washington, D.C., where I grew up and live. Their big-city consciousness keeps them tethered to a script: quick to label things racist, disdainful of anything having to do with Trump or his voters, and generally dismissive of “white ethnic” identity—to say nothing of the fact (and the context that comes with it) that not too long ago Italians, Poles, and other eastern and southern Europeans were hardly considered white. In my experience, both relatives and peers seem all too happy to stick with what they think they know about Italian American identity and experience.
Perhaps my own story is unique, touched with the double consciousness of a person who grew up with the name Vinnie in a place with few red sauce spots and almost no white ethnic enclaves. On the one hand, I was just another white kid from the suburbs of D.C. On the other, my father was Fred Rotondaro, the Executive Director of the National Italian American Foundation. Fondly remembered for his messy hair and gregarious smile, with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, dad read his ethnic history deeply, and was equally aware of America’s legacy of racism and slavery: entire walls of our house were filled with books on the subject. As an academic, he studied American intellectualism and gravitated toward the Transcendental. As an ethnic ambassador, he believed that human identity comes in a variety of shades, hues, and traditions, all of which should be shared and celebrated.
Born and raised in an immigrant mining town near Scranton, Pennsylvania, dad cut a unique figure in Washington. A longtime friend once described him as “an old-line, unreconstructed liberal who really believed in the struggle of the working man,” and a “walking advertisement for an Italian American success story.” In D.C., with his PhD in American Studies and years of experience running anti-poverty programs, he charted a career in ethnic politics and race relations, becoming a beloved connector of people and ideas. As Native activist Suzan Harjo recalled, the two befriended each other over a discussion about their respective struggles to maintain the language of their ancestors despite pressure to speak English. “And then we started going to lunch,” she said. “We just hit it off right away.” As co-founder of the Arab American Institute James Zogby wrote in a moving tribute: “When, in the 1970’s and 1980’s many in Washington refused to work with Arab Americans, Fred took me under his wing and taught me, often by example, the nuts and bolts of ethnic politics. … Quite simply, Fred gave me and my community a boost at a time when other people were not interested in including Arab Americans.”
Despite his leftist leanings, he was also willing—and able—to reach across the aisle. Dad never forgot where he came from. Often, when trying to humanize a conversation with someone he disagreed with politically, he would talk about his family and bring up the story of his father, my namesake: Angelo Rotondaro, an immigrant who came to this country at the age of six and entered the coal mines at 11, where he worked his entire adult life to provide for his family, surviving a horrific mine flood and ultimately dying of Black Lung. For dad, grandpop’s story was a chief means of communication, which he used to bridge myriad cultural, political, and ethnoracial divides.
But when my father died in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump became President, many of the human connections he lived for no longer felt viable. The election was unbearably toxic, and in Pittston, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, family ties had been severed over politics. It pained my father to see how the region’s anger and abandonment had been preyed upon, though he never turned his back on his family, many of whom voted for Trump. In the years that followed, I went looking for the nuance that had been lost in a culture that collapses society into black and white. I scoured my own family history, reading every book I could, talking to social scientists and labor historians, and visiting the tiny southern village where my family comes from in Calabria, as well as the woodsy, mountainous region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, colloquially known as NEPA, where they eventually settled. What I found cast a net of dissonance over the picture of Italy that many Americans hold in their head, including those of Italian descent. If Italian Americans like to imagine their ancestors landing on Ellis Island with the American Dream swelling in their hearts, they might be surprised to learn that for most of those immigrants, that dream meant all of the Americas—not just the U.S.—and that as many as half returned home to Italy.
If Americans in general associate Italian Americana with the mafia, they might be doubly surprised to learn about my ancestors’ historic battles against the mafia (who colluded with supercapitalists to exploit the mining rank and file), a tale of resistance that shaped our own version of that “Dream.” In researching my past, I unearthed stories about Rinaldo Capellini, a fiery, one-armed labor leader who led massive strikes in NEPA, and Salvatore Lucchino, a Sicilian immigrant who turned on the mob in Pittston. Yet to this day NEPA remains better known for figures like Russell Bufalino, the Pittston-based mafioso played by Joe Pesci in the 2019 Martin Scorsese film The Irishman. Equally problematic is that the true history of (southern) Italian Americans—so heavily steeped in experiences of race, class, and immigration—has simply been buried, subsumed in large part by the general whiteness that now characterizes us. In an age of petrified cultural and political polarization, with the specter of whiteness looming large, Italian American identity has almost come to represent a fault line of division. Yet looking back through my own ethnic history has been like peering into a portal that helps decipher the complexities of modern politics. I see so many connections between past and present. The social divisions that prevent multiracial solidarity today are similar to those of the past; economic justice for all remains an elusive political goal. Perhaps it is time for us all to look back and correct our amnesia, so that we can begin to move forward together. As my father wrote in an email shortly before he died, “I always found that my analysis of current issues was helped by my reading of bygone ages. Pop.”
My first inkling that Italy meant more than red wine and Renaissance art came as a teenager when my father gave me a book of photography depicting life in Naples. Paging through it, I happened upon a black-and-white photo of a somber looking boy with a stony, “thousand-year stare in his eyes,” as described in the picture’s caption. What history lay behind that thousand-year stare?
Between 1880 and 1980, an estimated 13 to 15 million Italians left Italy, more than three-quarters of them coming from the south, forming the largest voluntary diaspora in world history. While one cannot conflate the southern Italian peasant lot, which was comprised of people with a bewildering array of linguistic, ethnic, cultural, and religious practices, all shared in some form of historical socio-political oppression. This exodus was indeed thousands of years in the making.
Around 280 B.C., Rome colonized the southern Italian peninsula and imposed its systems of law and taxation. Southern slaves were used to log the Silar mountains for valuable pitch, or resin, which caulked the seams of warships used to build the Roman empire. I was struck to see this history alluded to on the website of my family’s hometown of Roggiano Gravina, in the province of Calabria, which mentions the city’s independent “spirit,” and the fact that the Roman historian Titus Livius referred to the Roggianese as “ignoble” for their resistance to Romanization.
In the centuries that followed, ruler after ruler planted their flag upon the southern Italian landscape. Roggiano’s website states:
The town was subject to the domination of the Goths, the Longobards, the Saracens, the Normans, the Angevins, and the Aragonese. It was a fief of Pietro Paolo da Viterbo, Bernardino da Bisignano, Sanseverino, Ametrano, Cavalcanti and Sanseverino Conti della Saponara.
In the Middle Ages, southern feudalism wrought a society blighted by extreme inequality and virtual slavery for agrarian peasants. Serfs were tied to landscapes ruled by nobles and aristocrats, or the Catholic Church. As Margherita Ganeri, Director of the “Italian Diaspora Studies” Seminar at the University of Calabria told me, if a peasant tried to escape their lot in life, outlaws known as brigands could be hired to hunt them down, or persecute their family.
Today in Italy, many romanticize the brigands as Robin Hood-like figures, with their colorful costumes and fetching hats—and in the distant past this may have been partially true. But scholars now see how they morphed into a decidedly exploitative force, used by aristocrats to crack down on grain theft, and into mercenaries who terrorized peasants in petty local wars. Many scholars now believe the social space once held by brigands was eventually filled by the cold and violent mafia: the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Camorra in Naples.
Peasant misery peaked during Bourbon rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. In rural hilltop villages like Roggiano Gravina, entire families lived in single-room, cell-like structures where barnyard animals often slept. Peasants were typically short in stature and malnourished. Their diet largely consisted of bread and oil, perhaps some wild greens, with meat rarely eaten. In the mornings, workers filed into the fields and valleys below to toil under oppressive heat, using primitive agricultural tools and methods of tilling soil in land pockmarked with malarial water. As late as 1859, one ethnohistorian told me, an estimated 98 percent of the Calabrian peasantry was illiterate.
In 1910—the same year my great grandparents left Italy with three out of five of their children—the British writer Norman Douglas traveled to Calabria through desolate, deforested land, and later penned an account of his adventures titled Old Calabria which gets at the social decay and squalor that prompted southern exodus. “The lot of the southern serfs was bad enough before America was ‘discovered,’” he wrote, “and quite unendurable in earlier times. There is a village not many hours from Naples where, in 1789, only the personal attendants of the feudal lord lived in ordinary houses; the two thousand inhabitants, the serfs, took refuge in caves and shelters of straw.”
“You are badly treated, my friend?” Douglas asks a theoretical peasant. “I quite believe it; indeed, I can see it. Well, go to Argentina and sell potatoes, or to the mines of Pennsylvania.”
Once the largest urbanized mining region in the country, modern day NEPA is characterized by long stretches of interlocking, formerly coal company-owned “patch towns.” Pittston, where my Italian great grandparents settled in 1910, is one of those towns.
As a kid, I remember visiting Pittston and eating at Sabatini’s Pizza, established 1958, in nearby Exeter. The pizza had an utterly unique, sweet-smoky sauce, the flavor of which sticks somewhere deep in the back of my mind. Pittston is where Main Street has come and gone, and come back again, with busted up storefronts revitalized, and the street reimagined in recent years. It’s where my no-nonsense aunt staged a family walk-out in the middle of mass one Easter, pissed off at the priest who was taking forever with his sermon, knowing well he had a captive audience (for once). It’s where the people speak with a distinct regional accent (like a Chicago twist on the way the actors speak in Mare of Easttown), and there is a big, bright red sculpted tomato in the center of town, as Pittston is the “Quality Tomato Capital of the World.”
I have nothing but fond memories of visiting Pittston when I was growing up. But people in D.C. tend not to appreciate the complexities of such a place. Nowadays, Pittston carries a bit of an unfortunate reputation, as the city of just over 7,000 people is located in the northeastern tip of Luzerne County, which the reporter Ben Bradlee, Jr., profiled as a national political bellwether in the 2017 book The Forgotten: How The People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America. Like the rest of the region, the county is heavily populated with the descendants of eastern and southern Europeans, as well as Brits, Germans and Irish, who came in the 19th century looking for work in the mines, and were subsequently exploited. Like other economically abandoned parts of the country which used to vote solidly blue, it went for Obama twice before lurching toward Trump. In short, it epitomizes the kind of middle- and working-class anger that propelled Trump into office. But where did that anger come from?
In 1861, northerners marched south to unify Italy and free the peasants—or so the argument went. But by all accounts the social exploitation only took on new forms, and the poor and oppressed remained poor and oppressed. A tremendous sense of disappointment followed unification. But also a new opportunity—the ability to leave—which peasants and other poor Southerners lunged at when they finally had the chance.
They were leaving behind poverty as well as extreme social prejudice. Following Italian unification, the “Southern Question” gave rise to a racist northern ideology which viewed the South as “a ball and chain that prevents a more rapid progress in the civil development of Italy,” as explained by Antonio Gramsci in 1926:
Southerners are biologically inferior beings, either semi-barbarians or out and out barbarians by natural destiny; if the South is underdeveloped it is not the fault of the capitalist system, or any other historical cause, but of the nature that has made Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric.
In 1910, the African American educator and orator Booker T. Washington visited southern Italy, where he saw women in fields using “heavy wrought iron hoes” that were “much like the heavy tools I had seen slaves use on the plantations before the Civil War,” and child slaves working in sulfur mines, which were about “the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.” He observed: “One of the first things I learned in Italy was that the people in northern Italy look down upon the people of southern Italy as an inferior race.
The racism described by Gramsci and Washington was nothing new. “An ascription such as ‘Calabrian’… has been racially charged for centuries,” writes the scholar Peter D’Agostino. “Medieval and early modern commentators considered the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and its Neapolitan capital a ‘paradise inhabited by devils.’ Counter-Reformation missionaries considered Calabria ‘our Indies’ populated by savages readily compared to animals.”
Southern stereotypes were given a pseudoscientific stamp at the end of the 19th century, when the northern eugenicist Cesare Lombroso and the Italian School of criminal anthropology appealed to positivism and phrenology to “measure the craniums, ears, foreheads, jaws, arms and other body parts [of Southerners] in search of anomalies that marked the born criminal.”
According to the historian John Dickie, “The south was one of Italy’s most important banks of images of Otherness.” Southerners were derided as fatalistic,1 unchanging, and backwards. Southern society was thought to be afflicted by what an American anthropologist would later term “amoral familism,” or a morality which directs behavior only towards the good of the nuclear family, at the expense of social progress. Racially speaking, Southerners were commonly associated with Africa, or the “Orient.”
“Europe ends at Naples and ends badly,” as the French poet Auguste Creuzé de Lesser wrote in 1806. “Calabria, Sicily and all the rest belong to Africa.”
In NEPA, this racialization only continued. “Blacker than any Africans” is how the New York City reporter Henry Rood described immigrant anthracite miners in 1898 as they came out of the mines covered in coal dust. Writing for the Century magazine—the Time of its day—Rood referred to eastern and southern Europeans as “domesticated animals,” and dwelled on their ability to vote. He described an anthracite mining community at night: “Some of the more intelligent lounge from one group to another insisting that every good foreigner obtain his ‘papers’ as soon as possible, and vote at the coming election, lest the ‘white man’ throw too many votes into the ballot box, and pass a law to drive them out of the country.” Italian immigrants “were about three centuries behind Americans in their standards of living, and general intelligence,” Rood wrote.
It was like this all over the country as an Anglo nativist frenzy raged. A decade after Rood’s 1898 visit, a 41-volume bicameral government report called the Dillingham Commission appealed to eugenics to assert a Dictionary of Races and Peoples and dehumanize new immigrants in America. The report’s chapter on the anthracite coal industry remarked on the “limited imagination” of the miners and listed the “South Italian” race as the least desirable and most dangerous. In another ten years, deeply nativist anti-immigration laws would be passed which virtually halted all immigration from Europe.
This history lives on in the present in more ways than one. In 1996, a right-wing northern Italian political party called for secession from the Italian south. In 2000, a large-scale sociological study of prejudice in Italy found that the strongest signals of bigotry in the country were intra-Italian, directed against Southerners by Northerners, followed by all Italians against Eastern Europeans and African immigrants. The findings were published in a 2002 book called The Outsider: Prejudice and Politics in Italy, which stated, “In a word, if Northern Italians do not think much of immigrants, they think even less of their compatriots.” Since then, immigration from Africa has spiked.
In Italy today, Southerners are still referred to as terroni, which means “dirt people” but carries an untranslatable social weight. Meanwhile in America, the collective psyche of affluent whites in cosmopolitan parts of the country tends to view people in places like NEPA as the “Other,” regardless of education, wealth or occupation—a “ball and chain” in their own right.
Few historical incidences of labor uprisings existed in southern Italy, save for the example of Sicily. In the town of Montedoro, the sulfur mines were run by the mafia, producing a system of exploitation and human bondage that was transported to NEPA, finding fertile ground in the anthracite mining industry, where coal barons relied on the practice of “subcontracting” to systematically undercut labor demands, skirt safety rules, and reduce wages.
In NEPA, mafiosi known as “The Men of Montedoro” (later led by Russell Bufalino, who, my father recalled, bought him and his friends milkshakes in Pittston when they were kids) infiltrated the subcontracting system and worked hand in hand with mine ownership, sometimes becoming mine owners themselves.
The exploitative scheme that followed only made an already dangerous job even more perilous. Coal mining had one of the highest mortality rates in the country, and anthracite coal—glassy and jet black, winding through the ground in every which way—was particularly difficult to mine. Today it is estimated that as many as 35,000 men and boys lost their lives in the anthracite mines. Yet anthracite coal barons in faraway places like New York and Philadelphia “continually recruited labor from overseas, offsetting the high death rate and ensuring low wages and high profits,” as University of Maryland anthropologist Paul Shackel notes in a 2018 paper studying the transgenerational effects of NEPA’s history of “structural violence.”
Because Italians and other new immigrants “were not seen as equals, they more frequently faced extreme physical, nutritional, and mental hardships as they dealt with substandard housing, dangerous living and working conditions, and frequent encounters with undernourishment,” Shackel writes. In order to make ends meet, many mining families sent children to work as quickly as possible. Such was the case for my grandfather, who became a “breaker boy”—one who separated rock from coal—in America at age 11. Between the years 1890 and 1899, as the sociologist Peter Roberts noted in the 1902 study The Anthracite Coal Industry, nearly 700 boys lost their lives working in the anthracite mining industry.
But the rank and file rebelled. By the turn of the 20th century, the region had seen a diverse array of immigrant workers—representing more than two dozen nationalities—unite under the banner of labor2 to fight against their exploitation. For many, this resistance marked the first time in their respective histories that they rose up against their masters; and through it all, Italians led the way, proving their stereotypes wrong at every twist and turn.
In 1910, a “pitched battle between picketers and state troopers” occurred during a wildcat strike when a “band of Italian women” gathered around a mine entrance near Pittston, as historians Robert Wolensky and William Hastie, Sr., write in Anthracite Labor Wars: Tenancy, Italians, and Organized Crime in the Northern Coalfield of Pennsylvania, 1895–1959. In a nearby township, Italian miners stoned a docking boss. A few days later, troops assaulted 300 striking miners led by a ringleader named Angelo Campamassi.
New immigrant unionism was viewed with extreme suspicion by Anglo America. As Wolensky and Hastie, Sr., note, the sociologist Roberts, who held racist views against eastern and southern Europeans, wrote that Italians and Slavs were “possibly the most dangerous element of the anthracite population” because they were “dominated” by the spirit of unionism.
Indeed, large numbers of Italians held political views that might piss off their modern day descendants (as well as many of my D.C. friends, too). In 1907, the socialist International Workers of the World, nicknamed the “Wobblies,” entered the anthracite scene. The union was one of the first to recruit women, Black people, and workers of different skills. Italian immigrants proved instrumental in building the IWW nationally as well as in NEPA, where they formed the largest ethnic contingent.
Other immigrant Italian leaders may not have been socialist, but were no less captivating, which begs the question: why have their stories been forgotten?
Few remember Salvatore “Sam” Lucchino, a Montedoro-born mafioso who turned on the mob to go undercover with the Secret Service in New York City and later as a cop in Pittston. Claiming he had “some ancient wrong to right,” Luchino survived four attempts on his life before being gunned down in 1920. As Wolensky and Hastie, Sr., note, over 6,000 people marched in his funeral, which was one of the largest in Pittston’s history, with “what seemed to be the entire Italian population of Pittston and surrounding towns present,” according to a local newspaper report.
A Sicilian-born mafioso with a crisis of conscience who turns on the mob in hard coal country? Scorsese, De Niro, DiCaprio, what are you waiting for?
Similarly, there is no movie about Rinaldo Cappellini, the one armed labor leader who commanded District 1 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in NEPA. With fiery rhetoric and a shock of black hair, Cappellini targeted subcontracting for extinction, staging massive strikes and directing tens of thousands to walk off the job at a time when the country depended on anthracite coal for its continued growth. Many of these strikes were seen from the outside as unpatriotic, especially during wartime.
Cappellini’s life was full of ups and downs, drama and intrigue. When it became clear that the UMWA was unable (or unwilling) to represent the miners’ interests, Cappellini lost favor with the rank and file, and was thrown out of office. But he roared back shortly after—helping to form an insurgent union which targeted subcontracting anew, giving way to a string of high profile shootings, murders and bombings—when mine-owner (and mafia) interests naturally resisted. In the end, it took President Roosevelt himself— beloved among mining folk—to intervene and pressure the men to go back to work.
While it was easy to sensationalize the violence, “what was most significant in the struggle of anthracite-region people in the 1930s was the powerful statement they made about life’s priorities,” writes the historian John Bodnar in Anthracite People: Families, Unions, and Work 1900–1940. Immigrants relied on the “family economy” to survive in America, which involved the pooling of money, with mothers frequently controlling the family budget and children helping out however they could. Women were everywhere during the Labor Wars, Bodnar notes, holding the picket lines and even beating would-be scabs to the ground. “The attitudes of most workers were rooted, ultimately, in the loving concern which united both family and neighborhood, and also in the tensions which pervaded these relationships,” he writes. This sense of autonomy, belonging, and optimism carried NEPA’s coal mining communities for years moving forward.
But in NEPA, that optimism came crashing down on January 22, 1959, when the Susquehanna River breached the walls of a mine just outside of Pittston, where my grandfather was working. The Knox Mine Disaster occurred around 11 a.m. as my dad was halfway through his junior year college midterm exams. When news of the disaster reached, dad rushed down to the mines, where makeshift tents were erected and families huddled around fires, waiting for word. A massive whirlpool churned at the spot in the river where the mine ceiling had collapsed. It looked like a black hole. In a desperate attempt to plug up the breach, officials diverted train tracks running parallel to the river, sending dozens of massive railroad and coal cars into the churning water. Around 2 p.m. a group of miners found an air shaft, and an immigrant named Amadeo Pancotti made a perilous escape, scaling a nearly vertical 50-foot pit using the tips of his fingers. As night fell, my grandfather was one of the last men to be rescued. Incredibly, he was uninjured after spending eight hours wandering in the dark through rising ice water, searching for light. The next morning, my father aced his test.
The disaster was precipitated by the subcontracting system and facilitated by mafia-mine-owner corruption, including individuals connected to the Bufalino crime family. Scores of indictments were made, but the damage would be final as the water seeped and spread, spelling an end to deep mining in the region (which was already in decline as America shifted to other forms of energy).
In the decades that followed, various forms of corruption infested the region as an “economic development of last resort,” and the psychological resilience that once marked NEPA’s immigrant communities began to falter. “The suddenness with which this disaster came to our community has utterly shocked and crushed us,” said retired mine worker George DeGerolemo at an event commemorating the first anniversary of the Knox Disaster.
Meanwhile, my father’s life was taking off. In 1960, he graduated with honors from the University of Scranton, becoming the second Rotondaro to earn a college degree. In ‘61, he earned a Masters Degree in English from Creighton University, and spent the following decade teaching at the University of Scranton, while also running a community newspaper in Pittston. In 1970, he earned a PhD in American Studies from NYU before leaving academia to run anti-poverty programs in Wilkes-Barre and later York, Pennsylvania, where he met my mother, who ran the city’s housing authority. In York, his entire staff and board of directors were Black, and they nicknamed him “the Godfather.”
Moving to D.C. in 1975, dad worked for a deep-thinking Catholic priest named Geno Baroni, who was himself the son of a Pennsylvania mining family. Baroni got his start in Washington in the early 1960s starting social service programs and advocating for African American families in the U Street Corridor, a historically Black part of town that has since gentrified. In ‘63, he served as the Catholic coordinator for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Later, he founded the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, where my father worked as Communication Director, before becoming an Assistant Secretary at HUD. Along the way, he founded the National Italian American Foundation, and appointed my father as Executive Director.
Baroni spoke in a brusque stream of consciousness. He foresaw the political trouble brewing within white working-class America, and was terrified by it. “We’ve seen the revolt in our youth group, as we’ve seen the revolt in the black, brown and Chicano communities,” he once said, giving a speech at a nonprofit café, bookstore, and event space in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., called Potter’s House, shortly before dying of cancer in 1984. “Are we going to see some kind of radicalization in the white working class? Will that radicalization be positive or negative?”
Baroni believed that monolithic thinking about identity, black and white, majority vs. minority, was inherently problematic. He did not view America as a “melting pot,” but instead as a rich mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, histories, regions, and values:
Everybody has to have a story. … Everybody has to have values. But there are no values in the private, corporate sector … and there are very little or no values much in government. … The values are where you come from. The values are your story. … You have to know who you are, before you can relate to someone else.”
Often, he lamented how quickly Italians had lost touch with their roots in America, and failed to see their own history reflected in the struggles of others. At Potter’s House, he asked:
“How can you teach my nephew, Rodney Ruggiero, about black history when he has an historical amnesia about himself? You can’t talk to kids in Steubenville College [in Ohio] about why the Black Panthers, why Angela Davis, why Huey Newton, why black rebellion. … It takes a very smart teacher to understand and recognize that somebody in Steubenville has to go back and look up the Republic Steel strike, the coal mine struggle, the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania, the riots, the violence of this nation and the true history of this country.”
My father was deeply influenced by Baroni’s teachings. “As an Italian American, I might point out that my prior experience includes extensive work in community action programs, poverty programs, particularly in one area where for six years virtually my entire staff and Board of Directors were Black,” he said in 1983, testifying before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
“The one lesson I learned there was that the best way to combat discrimination and to fight against the problems that affected the Black community [was] to involve other elements of the community as well. In this particular case it was York, Pennsylvania, where there were many elements of the German and Dutch community. But we reached out.”
“As an Italian American, I think it would be foolish on my part to say that the civil rights problems of Italian Americans or southern or eastern Europeans are nearly as grievous now, nor have they ever been, as those affecting Blacks and Hispanics. But there are some such problems. And I would like to see my own Italian American community involved actively in a national fight to help make the imagery of the Constitution a living reality for all Americans.”
But as we all know, this is not what happened. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the gap between the working and professional classes widened into a chasm. Work was disappearing at the same time that Democratic Party began to abandon its blue-collar white constituents, realigning its base with Wall Street interests and white professionals (many of whom used to vote Republican), while presenting concern over the plight of “minority voters.” Needless to say, the messaging that followed did not jive with the aggrieved consciousness of blue-collar whites.
Meanwhile, Republicans were swooping in to pick up what the Democrats had left behind, and both parties were giving “the store away to the more affluent,” as the sociologist Lillian Rubin wrote in 1993 preface for the 20th anniversary edition of her classic study Worlds of Pain: Life In The Working-Class Family. What seemed to underlie this tectonic shift was a “declining significance of class in favor of increasing salience of race,” she wrote, as right-wing politicians with nativist rhetoric were making inroads with working-class white ethnics that would have seemed fanciful just a generation before. Indeed, where Italians, Poles and other southern and eastern European immigrants were once seen as racial others, now their anxieties were being channeled and politically preyed upon as White3 Working Class anger and resentment. In the decades that followed, with the interventions of deregulation, the offshoring of jobs, and 24-7 cable news (read: Fox News), this dynamic only grew more and more pronounced.
Today, economic exploitation takes on new forms in NEPA as Amazon and other big box warehouses employ Latino immigrants as independent contractors, denying benefits and forcing immigrants to work in rank conditions, just as Italians and others were treated one hundred years before. The closure of churches and other public spaces, along with incidence of subsidence—or the caving of land due to mining—adds an experience of decay to cap off an overall feeling of “solastalgia,” or “the homesickness you have when you are still at home.”
Tragically, where the experience of labor once united people and the “family economy” held strong, now politics rips NEPA apart, as families fight bitterly over Trump. Nationally, we hate on each other and fall for caricatures at a distance—with liberals calling Trump supporters Nazis, and Trumpers calling liberals pedophiles. This is despite the fact—which I see, caught somewhere in between—that the overwhelming majority of both sides are good, decent people, sharing the same basic wants and desires while struggling to make sense of a rapidly changing world.
Meanwhile, something interesting is happening in NEPA. In recent years, waves of Black and Latino newcomers have been moving to the region from places like Philadelphia, New York City, and New Jersey, escaping gentrification and impossible costs of living. Interviews with local educators suggest the children of these newcomers, along with those of the older white populations, are busy forming a new consciousness, one that increasingly pays no mind to the old racial and political hang-ups. How might the forgotten stories of NEPA’s immigrant mining communities—fighting for their families, and against supercapitalist exploitation—color this multiracial consciousness as it moves into an uncertain future?
The stories that we tell ourselves can hold us back or move us forward. As NEPA’s Italian American experience shows, both left and right alike, and every faction in between, has a thing or two to learn about its own history. We could all stand to improve our understanding of race and identity—and the past can lead the way, if only we look back and remember. I’m reminded of a quote by the author David B. Morris, who wrote in the The Culture of Pain: “The future of pain will reveal its shape distinctly only if we recover and understand the past. It is the past that helps us understand how we got where we are now. It is where the future begins.”
Vinnie Rotondaro is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
Fatalism, or the belief in a lack of personal power over destiny or fate, is a recurring theme in the southern Italian historical experience. In literature, it was most famously described by the Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his 1959 novel The Leopard. The book chronicles the life of a melancholy Sicilian aristocrat named Don Fabrizio, who struggles to accept his slipping grip on Italian society in the wake of Italian Unification. “Sleep, my dear Chevalley,” Don Fabrizio states, “eternal sleep. That is what Sicilians want.” Upon publication of The Leopard, another prominent Sicilian mind bristled at that characterization. The writer and politician Leonardo Sciascia did not believe that southerners were so passive or cynical. He sought to articulate a new word to describe the spirit of Southerners: Sicilitudine, signifying a conflicted mental state, or “a way of being” with origins in “historical fear.” For Sciascia, the cultural pessimism that Lampedusa described was more like a psychological headwind; one that southerners were forced to contend with vis-à-vis their history, but were not necessarily ruled or defined by. This grinding tension of mind—hovering somewhere between historical determinism and cultural determination—fascinated and bewildered Sciascia. ↩
In NEPA, the first efforts to organize were made by Welsh immigrants, and took place in hyper local settings. Their demands for better pay and safer work conditions were quashed. The same result was met later on by Irish immigrants who left behind poverty and famine in Europe, where they lived under the thumb of the British, only to find the same power dynamic at play in NEPA, where the Welsh and Brits ran the mines. Drawing on a long history of rural agrarian labor violence, a militant group of Irish miners known as the Molly Maguires sent mine owners “coffin notices” alongside labor demands, and later dynamite when those demands were not met. Between the years 1877 and 1878, twenty Maguires were convicted of murder and hung. ↩
The literature surrounding the evolution of Italian American whiteness is contentious. Where academics like Thomas A. Guglielmo have written about Italian immigrants in Chicago as “white on arrival,” scholars like Robert Orsi have described them in Harlem as a racially “in-between” people, competing for work and a sense of place with Blacks and Puerto Ricans. Describing the development of whiteness within “new immigrant” consciousness, historians like David Roediger have written about the influences of redlining, “sundowning neighborhoods,” and a general spatial dynamic of close-quarters racial segregation. But in NEPA, census records from 1930 show that Black residents comprised just half a percent of Scranton’s population, and just one percent of Wilkes-Barre’s—two of the region’s largest cities. A recent study suggests that redlining in these cities was most likely driven by the presence of slag heaps and subsidence, as opposed to race. In smaller communities like Pittston, there were virtually no Black people at all. Perhaps whiteness was baked into popular culture, or the very idea of becoming Italian American. Or maybe it was a result of mining exams being held in English (like many first generation children, my father never learned how to speak Italian because his parents wouldn’t teach him). In many ways, Italian immigrants and other new immigrants surely grasped at the social advantages provided by being white in America. But as James Baldwin notes in his essay, “On Being White…And Other Lies,” in other ways, it was exercised upon them, through “a vast amount of coercion.” We forget that the Ku Klux Klan marched in NEPA, or that the origins of the first Columbus Day are tied to one of the largest lynchings in American history, when eleven Italian immigrants were hung by a mob in New Orleans. ↩